During the Meiji restoration, the Emperor sought to switch Japan's national language from Japanese to English. Why was that? Why, ultimately, was it unsuccessful?

The Role of English and Other Foreign Languages in Japanese Society and The Language of Civilization: Identity and Desire in the Meiji Era do offer some explanation but not enough to my liking.

Any more?

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    Probably it was unsuccessful because not many Japanese knew English or wanted to learn it. – Lev Oct 12 '11 at 13:10
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    Well they were already enamoured of Europe so sure there might be interest in the culture, but changing a national language of centuries is a hard sell. – MichaelF Oct 13 '11 at 16:42
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    Do you have a source for this claim? – Anschel Schaffer-Cohen Oct 31 '11 at 2:18
  • @AnschelSchaffer-Cohen: See my edits. – Sardathrion Oct 31 '11 at 8:47

(A little background for others reading this post) In 1868 Emperor Meiji re-established imperial rule. To move Japan into the modern era, he encouraged his people to explore and learn from the more technologically advanced cultures of the world.

Even in the late 1800s, English was the language of international commerce. Emperor Meiji's push to learn English was an attempt to jump onto the world stage with both feet. The effort failed for many of the same reasons that the metric system failed in the US. People are creatures of habit - they only change when they want to change or environment forces them to change. A decree has no force without the will of the people. Language is also a source of national identity. It is easy to adopt someone else's architecture and technology, but language is personal.

By contrast, during this same period the government ordered commoners to adopt a surname. Imagine living in a caste system in which only the high-class had last names, and you are told to be more like a high-class person. In spite of the large scale and significance of this change, it is hard to imagine an effort like this failing.

The only way English would have succeeded as a national language in Japan is if it were somehow necessary.

I found this virtual exhibit from a Canadian Museum (of all places). Though it does not address English specifically, it does a great job of summarizing the attitude in Japan during the late 1800s.

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    I minored in Asian Studies in college back in the 90s. I was fascinated by the Meiji Restoration period because it was a time when imperial ego was set aside in the name of progress. I wish I could find more authoritative sources to back up my response, but I have long since given up the textbook that I want to use as a reference. Most of what I wrote is what I remember from class lectures anyway. – Brien Malone Nov 11 '11 at 12:03
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    @Rose: You make a good point. Ego was the wrong word. (I'm not sure if Jim's comment was directed at my answer or not, but the 'ego' had nothing to do with the Emperor caring or not caring about his people.) The "early modern" period in Japan starts with Tokugawa and ends with Meiji (who ushered in the "modern era"). Tokugawa was intensely suspicious of foreigners and worked hard to minimize their influence. Meiji took the opposite approach, and the benefit was immediately obvious. – Brien Malone Feb 12 '12 at 8:44
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    ... another great source for information: facts-about-japan.com/modern-japan.html – Brien Malone Feb 12 '12 at 8:49
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    @AndrewGrimm In the 1860s/1870s, the British Empire was near its peak, whereas the USA was still recovering from a civil war. I'd be very surprised if it had even occurred to anyone to consider American English, in much the same way that the opposite would probably be the case since World War II :) – Owen Blacker Feb 28 '12 at 0:04
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    @OwenBlacker - Perhaps, but it was the Americans who (re)opened up Japan and inadvertantly touched off the Meiji, and it was America where they sent their best and brightest (eg: future admiral Yamamoto) off to study. So I know where I'd place my bet. – T.E.D. Apr 3 '12 at 20:59

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